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Mother Tongue at Stake, by Mustafa Zaman, Star Weekend Magazine

Twenty years ago Menlay Murang, a Mro by descent, introduced a new religion. He called his faith Crama. According to Shourav Sikder, an assistant professor of Linguistics in Dhaka University who conducted an extensive research on the languages of the indigenous people living in Bangladesh, the new faith emerged by compounding Christian beliefs with the existing animistic practices of the Mro people. Menlay’s vision was not confined to the spread of his religion. He created the opportunity to make his people literate in their mother tongue. He is the man who has given his own people Mro alphabets.

UNESCO Photo: Learning in second language: The formidable dropout rate stand in the way of the children who are not taught in their mother tongue.
Menlay established a learning centre in his own village in 1986, which he called Mro Cha Sangra, meaning Mro learning centre. It was later destroyed in the devastating cyclone of 1991, and Menlay could not rebuild his school. So, he failed to continue his effort thereafter. Among the fifty indigenous groups of people that inhabit Bangladesh Mros have had better luck in ensuring education of their offspring in their own language. They have text books up to class three in Mro. It is an achievement that many other Adivasi groups would be envious of. Many of these Mro text books emphasise the fact that the Mro alphabet originally stemmed from Roman, Burmese, and Sino sources. It also acknowledges the debt to a Mro named Menrum Mro who invented a Mro font in 1996 called Rien. The books, brought out by a committee on behalf of the Mro community with the help of Gonoshastho Kendra, are written in the alphabets invented by the Menlay.

“The proposition to provide education to all the indigenous groups in their own language is almost an impossible one at present, as most do not have their own written script. Those who don’t have alphabets of their own are also divided over whether to adopt Roman or Bangla script when it comes to forging a written form of their own language,” says Sikder. He speaks of a similar divide among the Santals. “Among them the ones who converted to Christianity prefer Roman alphabet to the Bangla script. The rest are willing to adopt Bangla alphabets in written expression of Santali, their language,” Sikder clarifies.

Tripuras of India have been successful in their effort to introduce their own language even at the higher secondary level. Khasias living in the Indian state of Meghalya too are lucky to have Khasia, their mother tongue, as the medium of instruction up to high school level. The language script, initiated by Christian missionaries is Roman. But here in Bangladesh, even the most organised and largest indigenous community the Chakmas, who have a script of their own, do not have schools to teach it to their children “Ninety-five percent of the Chakmas would fail to recognise their own alphabet. But those very same people are well acquainted with Bangla script,” says Sikder.

Although there have been efforts in the past to adopt Chakma language as the medium of education, in absence of government patronisation they failed to create a wider impact. Mangal Kumar Chakma writes in a Prothom Alo article that a man name Noaram Chakma published a book designed for children in Chakma language way back in 1959. He also adds that in the 1970s there have been cultural organisations involved in proliferation of Chakma language. They made efforts to increase the use of the mother tongue in every stratum of life and patronised Chakma literature to this end. Since the 1980s the “Jhum Aesthetic Council” was instrumental in bringing out books on Chakma stories, poems and dramas. The same organisation arranged for Chakma dramas to be staged throughout the country. “The Cultural Institute for the Adivasis” even dared to take things a little further; it introduced primary education as well as a language course in Chakma. However, the efforts were not adequate and they failed to leave an impact on the society at large. More

Source: York Centre for Asian Research Update Issue 40, Friday, March 3, 2006

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